WASHINGTON — U.S. employers added 171,000 jobs in October, and hiring was stronger in August and September than first thought. The solid job growth showed that the economy is strengthening slowly but consistently.
The unemployment rate rose to 7.9 percent from 7.8 percent in September. That was mainly because many more people began looking for work, and not all of them found jobs. The government uses a separate survey to calculate the unemployment rate, and it counts people without jobs as unemployed only if they're looking for one.
Friday's report was the last major snapshot of the economy before Tuesday's elections. It's unclear what political effect the report might have. By now, all but a few voters have made up their minds, particularly about the economy, analysts say.
Since July, the economy has created an average of 173,000 jobs a month. That's up from 67,000 a month from April through June. Still, President Barack Obama will face voters with the highest unemployment rate of any incumbent since Franklin Roosevelt and slightly higher than the 7.8 percent on Inauguration Day.
The work force — the number of people either working or looking for work — rose by 578,000 in October. And 410,000 more people said they were employed. The difference is the reason the unemployment rate rose slightly.
The influx of people seeking jobs "could be a sign that people are starting to see better job prospects and so should be read as another positive aspect to the report," said Julia Coronado, an economist at BNP Paribas.
During a campaign stop in Columbus, Ohio, Obama said the job figures show the economy is slowly healing.
"We've made real progress, but we are here today because we know we've got more work to do," Obama said. "Our fight goes on."
But GOP challenger Mitt Romney pointed out to voters that the unemployment rate is now higher than when Obama took office.
"For four years, President Obama has told us that things are getting better and that we're making progress," Romney said. "For too many American families, those words ring hollow. We can do better."
Friday's report included a range of encouraging details.
The government revised its data to show that 84,000 more jobs were added in August and September than previously estimated. August's job gains were revised from 142,000 to 192,000, September's from 114,000 to 148,000.
The unemployment rate has fallen a full percentage point in the past 12 months. Much of that decline occurred because people gave up looking for work. That pushed the percentage of Americans working or looking for work to 63.5 percent in August, a 31-year low.
But since then, more Americans have started or resumed their job hunts and most have found work. The percentage of Americans working or looking for work rose for a second straight month in October to 63.8 percent.
The number of people with part-time jobs who wanted full-time work dropped last month. And the number of discouraged workers also declined. A measure of unemployment that includes those two groups plus the unemployed dipped to 14.6 percent from 14.7 percent.
The economy has added jobs for 25 straight months. There are now 580,000 more than when Obama took office.
But there were also signs of the economy's persistent weakness. Average hourly pay dipped a penny to $23.58. In the past year, average hourly pay for most workers rose only 1.1 percent. That's the smallest annual gain on records dating back to 1965.
Because more people sought jobs than found one, the number of unemployed rose 170,000 to 12.3 million. That pushed up the unemployment rate.
The October jobs report was compiled before Superstorm Sandy struck the East Coast earlier this week and devastated many businesses.
Job gains were spread broadly across most industries. Businesses added 184,000 jobs in October, the most in eight months. Government overall cut 13,000.
The nascent housing recovery is finally generating jobs. Construction companies added 17,000 jobs, the most since January. Manufacturers added 13,000 jobs after shedding 27,000 in the previous two months.
Professional services such as architects and computer systems providers also added jobs. So did retailers, hotels and restaurants, and health care.
Vocus Inc., based in Beltsville-Md., has ramped up hiring this year to keep up with the rapid growth in demand for its digital marketing software. It has nearly doubled its staff this year to about 750. Most of the new hires have been sales positions. It plans to hire at least 200 more people next year.
The company is benefiting as more businesses switch from newspaper ads and the yellow pages to social media and online search engines. Vocus expects revenue to jump more than 50 percent this year compared to 2011.
Companies "are still willing to make investments in marketing software," Rick Rudman, Vocus' chief executive, said. "We're helping people grow their businesses."
The economy has shown many signs of picking up a bit. Americans are buying more high-cost items, like cars and appliances. Auto companies reported steady sales gains last month despite losing three days of business to the storm in heavily populated areas of the Northeast.
Yet businesses remain nervous about the economy's future course. Many are concerned that Congress will fail to reach a budget deal before January. If lawmakers can't strike an agreement, sharp tax increases and spending cuts will take effect next year and weaken the economy.
American companies are also nervous about the economic outlook overseas. Europe's financial crisis has pushed much of that region into recession and cut into U.S. exports and corporate profits.